If you are fascinated by the history of race . . .

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In 2008, in the midst of the heated presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave a speech in which he declared, "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore." Yet at times it seems that racial divisions loom so large over our country that they overshadow all else. This year at the National Book Festival, we are lucky to host writers who have coolly considered race in all its kaleidoscopic permutations, from politics to culture to history to family life. Unfortunately, you'll be wishing for an avatar -- beautifully blue-skinned, of course -- because some of these authors will be appearing at the same time in different tents.

In "The History of White People," Nell Irvin Painter (History & Biography at 11:10 a.m.) argues that "race is an idea, not a fact." From ancient times to present day, she traces how that idea developed. The Greeks and Romans did not differentiate people by skin color, for instance, and as early Irish immigrants to America could attest, one might have white skin and still not qualify as "white."

In 1955, before Rosa Parks held her ground at the front of a bus, Claudette Colvin, just 15 years old, refused to give up her seat to a white woman in Montgomery, Ala. She will appear at the festival with Phillip Hoose (Teens & Children at 11:10 a.m.), who wrote "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice," a biography aimed at kids but essential reading for anyone curious about a courageous, forgotten hero of the civil rights movement.

New Yorker editor David Remnick (History & Biography at 5 p.m.) observes the politics of race in "The Bridge," his biography of Barack Obama. As Gwen Ifill put it in her review of the book for The Post, "Remnick seeks to illuminate Obama's role as racial hero and lightning rod, and to discern the president's own mixed feelings about it."

National Public Radio host Michele Norris (Contemporary Life at 5 p.m.), in her memoir, "The Grace of Silence," describes how race and the consequences of discrimination have threaded their way through her life. "The discussion about race within my own family," she admits, "was not completely honest." (See our review on page 12.)

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

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